Opinion: When the world fell ill

The author highlights some observations and inferences from this pandemic and people’s reactions to it.

Apr 15, 2020 06:24:00 AM | Article | Anil K Nair Share - Share to Facebook

It was January 2020. The year had a nice ring to it and looked positive. When the news of a strange virus in some obscure part of the world (read Wuhan), emerged. But there were other pressing matters for the world. The growing USA-China trade friction, the dragging Brexit saga nearing conclusion, shadow boxing over oil prices, the growing global migrant crisis and the creeping fear of a soft recession. But there were silver linings too, like the Olympics and, closer home, the Cricket World Cup.
Cut to today. We are in the middle of something unprecedented. The entire world has shut down. Economies have been brought to their knees. There is the threat of a hard recession. Countries closing borders and stockpiling resources. Governments at sea with no protocols or playbooks. Industries leapfrogging into near oblivion. And trillions of dollars of value erosion both real and potential. And the ability of social media to spread both truth and perception at the speed of thought.
With no clear end in sight, no confident cure on the horizon, people are – for the first time – forced to deal with this situation on their own. In their little echo chambers. A lot of the responses are driven by a heightened sense of anxiety fuelled by social media and paranoia – a desperate ‘clutching at straws’ by people. From malarial medicine to coconut oil treatments, gaumutra and candlelight vigils, everything is par for the course. Thank goodness for fat pipe data and the internet as people look towards each other for help. In that sense, this pandemic will go down in history as the first global pandemic of the ‘digitally connected ‘age.
They say that it takes 21 days to form a habit and change behaviour and by the look of it, the lockdown may well extend beyond that period. Enough time to change a few attitudes and behavioural traits which could have far-reaching implications on the way we live, learn, work and play. 
Given the fact that families are torn apart by this lockdown, there has been a huge overload on the need to connect with friends and your loved ones. Relationships are being recalibrated and repurposed as people bring their full attention to their immediate people. There is also a fear of not being good enough triggered by a potential loss of employment, redundancy and the sheer uncertainty of the future, especially among millennials and the younger populace. Both these have fundamentally shaken people at the core, making this situation far more impactful and a tipping point for society as a whole.
Most importantly, the situation is forcing brands and organizations to move from a structured, planning system to a more fluid, scenario-based thinking and approach. This itself is a paradigm shift from years of conditioning and internal rigid structures and processes. 
Cataclysms always give rise to a wave of innovation and disruption. History is alive with waves of brands and services that have come in the wake of such events. And this one will, too. I wish to highlight some observations and my inferences from this pandemic and people’s reactions to it.
1. Virtual is the ‘new normal’
For brands and businesses that have tip-toed around the digitisation of their businesses, this is a rude wake-up call. It is no longer a ‘good-to-have’ or a luxury but a necessity that can help them pivot given the open-ended nature of our current situation. This will also mean an inside-out relook at systems and processes that can help businesses kick into Plan B as soon as possible. The idea will be to further drive into areas of consumer convenience, personalisation and localisation that can thrive as opposed to the ‘spray and pray’ approaches of earlier times.
2. Get ready for new consumer buying behaviour
The consumer is frazzled and has already started to exhibit reactionary behaviour to this current crisis which is threatening to cripple their freedom and existence. From quickly adapting to online buying to group purchasing by housing societies to bulk buying and hoarding. This is where ‘survival mode’ meets ‘downsizing’. This means that ‘must-have’ items will see a spike while ‘good-to-have’ items will experience a slump.
3. Our relationship with money is changing
People are being rudely awakened to that line item in every investment planner’s proposal called Contingency Funds. With growing unemployment fears, salary cuts, unforeseen cost flare-ups, and stagnant equity markets, the importance of liquidity or even physical instruments like gold or Gold ETFs has never been more acute. People will, for a while, be wary of spending money.
4. Home and dry
After a prolonged stay-at-home experience, and given the fact that some form of staying at home will continue even as the virus wears out, an increased proclivity to home-related concerns and solutions will be sought out. Men will be forced to take a more active role in home affairs leading to a shift in the gender equation at home. Also, there could be an increased interest in home utility items like dishwashers, rice cookers, home gyms, the second TV, second laptops, better curtains, home gardening equipment. Who knows?
5. The labour equation
The forced lockdown, reverse migration and the reduced availability of cheap labour going forward, could inspire people to turn increasingly self-reliant at home. The middle classes are getting used to cooking, cleaning, driving, running errands themselves, and possibly understanding the economics of being self-reliant as in the western countries.
6. A tipping point for AI/ML and Automation
The infectious nature of this virus and the fact that any mass cure is still a year away can tip the scales in favour of automation and reduced dependence on human intervention across all aspects of the supply chain. It will also spur the use of technologies like artificiaI intelligence/machine learning and predictive demand-supply estimation forcing industry to accelerate their adoption of such technologies to avoid any future downtime.
7. Businesses will have to pivot quick
The other day, a friend who runs an experiential travel company shared his post-Covid19 pivot strategy of moving from travel as a core to outbound training and education. It set me thinking about the other industries that will be compelled to shut down or pivot. Restaurants may have to resort to takeaways and cut down on expensive real estate. Communal spaces like cinema halls will also be affected and so will shopping malls. One also wonders how intimate spaces like hair salons will react? Or dentist parlours for that matter?  Will they wait it out or start home service solutions? Will a visit to any of the above ever be the same again? Consumers are already making a beeline for e-commerce. And surprisingly, the local kirana /neighbourhood stores which were near oblivion have got a fresh lease of life and have regained their importance. 
8. Increased importance of loyalty
Consumers are going to keep their cards close to their chest. They might eschew traditional loyalty and adopt whichever brand suits their interest at the moment. This might be in terms of utility, convenience, price or simply, access. It is therefore even more important to nurture your loyalty programme/loyal consumer base and use data-driven CLM to ensure a more personalized and conversational model of engagement.
9. Increased focus on health and health care
This situation, I hope, will transform our nation’s attitude to hygiene and health care.  Hand hygiene, public spitting, open defecation, public area sanitization, office hygiene, overcrowding, hospital infrastructure, are all areas where we as a nation will learn and improve.
10. An Introspective society
This global pandemic has temporarily dented the drive towards globalisation and the world as a global village maxim. More people are turning inward. Into their countries, communities, families, and themselves. The world, for now, is choosing to go tribal.
The world is in the middle of what I would call a massive ‘pattern break’. Which means that most people will be forced out of their daily life – a treadmill that they were on until now. We can already see some dramatic new markets, consumer segments and opportunities emerge e.g. the adoption of digital payments by the elderly, the new breed of remote workers, students and doctors, as well as online entertainment with more ‘peer to peer’ content production. All of these make it an opportune time for new concepts and ideas to segway in. It will throw up interesting new businesses based on subscription frameworks, human-free production, distributed working, mass robotics etc.
The other truth is that success for anyone in the post-COVID world will be directly proportional to the amount of uncertainty that one is willing to deal with. Be it brand or consumer. 
There is a line of thought which says that people are incorrigible and that the world will go back to ‘status quo’ and life will continue as normal. However, I believe that this prolonged disruption has already transformed global and individual consciousness and is steering us along a divergent path that will unravel as we go along. Until then all we can do is stay indoors, take a deep calm breath, refresh ourselves and ponder.
(The author is CEO, VMLY&R India.)